Kevin Quinn could only watch the smoke from the Schneider Springs Wildfire hover over the horizon. Quinn is the owner and chief brewer of the Bale Breaker Brewery Company, born in Yakima in 2013. The brewery is located on his family’s Field 41 hop farm, Loftus Ranches, less than 50 miles southeast of the fire’s origin.
When the smoke didn’t hit the ground, Quinn knew the location had helped this time, but lucked out. “We know we can’t control [wildfires], and speaking only on behalf of Loftus, have not seen any negative impact on the quality of the hops grown,” said Quinn. “But we also know that with more fires, that risk just keeps increasing and increasing. We don’t want to see forest fires.”
Global warming is a phenomenon so powerful that it can sometimes feel like making fun of individual actions. As much as farms and breweries are quick to mention their own efforts to reduce carbon emissions, eliminate waste, switch to solar energy, and minimize water use—and as much as these changes are needed cumulatively—it can be a challenge to fight feelings of powerlessness when nature’s destructive forces are at hand. down.
“Last year was interesting,” Quinn said. “Extremely hot June.” A record-breaking one, even: On June 29, the thermostat rose to 113° Fahrenheit. “The agriculture industry is hereditary, so you get the farmers talking about how they’ve never seen anything like it. The initial consensus was that it would have a negative impact on results and quality.”
Just as the heat affected the jump, so did the smoke from the forest fires around Yakima. Smoke stains can affect the quality of the hops, although they don’t always come across as a campfire smell might be expected—it can also mean emphasizing positive attributes, such as the citrus or tropical characteristics that beer drinkers prefer. (Farmers and wine sellers in places like Napa Valley and Sonoma more and more wrestling with their own problems around smoke stains.)
Sensory examiners in the Yakima Valley have used many descriptors for smoke-tainted hops, including soy sauce, tar, barbecue flavoring (as in Lay’s Potato Chips), and toast. This is further complicated by adding “curveballs,” says Jeff Dailey, sensory associate scientist and sensory program manager at John I. Haas, Inc. Factors such as the variety of hops, how far the hops are in progress, how much smoke there is, and the heat index of the day can all play a role in how a jump is affected.
Yakima Chief Hops sensory manager Tiff Pitra said farmers’ suppliers of hops were still unsure about how events such as an end-of-season heatwave or nearby bushfires could affect crops. “Whether it has an impact or not, we don’t know,” he said. “We want to explore, we want to learn.” Simply put, it’s hard to control something that cannot be controlled, even though industry professionals are grappling to learn more about hops’ yields as the climate crisis worsens.
“[We’ll wonder if we] can let the hops hang later, can we burn longer or shorter, or can we install a filter to prevent the entry of smoke,” said Pitra. “But then we often have this short window to set up a trial. Bottom line, is it worth changing the way we build kilns, making major infrastructure changes? This change requires data to show that the change is feasible. Every breeder breeds disease-resistant and drought-resistant hops. They know time is ticking.”
Levi Wyatt, manager of corporate social responsibility at Yakima Chief Hops, argues that most farmers enter each spring with the wide-eyed idealism that usually accompanies the season of rebirth. There is a tremendous sense of optimism that comes from doing something over and over again. These days, anxiety only comes later.